For centuries, they were a style essential for ladies looking for added poise and a (very) slim waist. So what happened when I tried one for a week?
We have, one could argue, never been as fixated by the body beautiful as we are now – despite the fact that we are getting bigger (women’s waists have grown by 7in since 1951). And yet, while many are happy to sign up for liposuction, gastric bands or anything to aid slimming, we no longer think it is acceptable to squeeze ourselves into a cinch belt.
But corsets have been worn by ladies of all classes for centuries. From the swan-bill corset of the Edwardian age, which forced the wearer’s hips and torso out of place, to the hourglass contortions – 18in waist, anyone? – of the Victorians, the quest for the finest figure possible is arguably as old as fashion itself.
Besides, corsets aren’t just about acquiring a wasp-like waist. Think of corsets and you picture a woman with poise. Speaking as a particularly clumsy individual, poise is something I could do with more of.
So I set myself a challenge: I’d wear a corset for (about) a week and see whether it would make my movements more graceful, my demeanour more refined – and, yes, my waist more wasp-like.
For five days I alternated between two differing corsets – a classic, overbust style (Vollers Sweetheart Corset, £210, Rigby & Peller: www.rigbyandpeller.co.uk) and an under-bust contraption (the Mae Corset, £139.50, What Katie Did: www.whatkatiedid.com) – and I have a newfound admiration for the ladies of fashions past.
It’s certainly no wonder that with the emancipation of women, came the loosening of their stays. You might look good in a corset (and I loved the Jessica Rabbit curves they created) but you can’t actually do anything. Other than think about how much you miss breathing. So, after a week of wearing a corset for 14 hours a day, I have learnt…
One cannot bend (at all)
I have always assumed that men used to be gentlemanly – bending down to pick things up for ladies – because it was polite to do so. But no: I have learnt that, when tightly corseted, a man to pick up after you is a necessity. When I dropped my phone, no way could I bend down to pick it up. I looked at my husband, who then looked at me, before he realised my predicament and retrieved it.
Also, I quickly got into the habit of putting on my shoes before my corset. Or placing my bag on a chair, rather than on the £ oor. And if bending was unavoidable, I did it properly (using my legs rather than my back).
Don’t wear tights
On day two, it was chilly, so I pulled on a pair of thick, warm tights. Which was fine, until I got to work and went to the bathroom: the tights were under my corset. So, I spent 20 minutes in a tiny cubicle, jumping about and contorting, until I laddered the tights.
You get out of breath
Running for a train? Out of the question. Even going up and down stairs takes its toll. You cannot expand your lungs. Even laughing is impossible.
You, ahem, need to burp a lot!
I was genuinely intrigued to see if wearing a corset would suppress my rather large appetite. Would the contraption squeezing my waist make me more able to pass up on the various cakes that far too often frequent my office? Well no. I was every bit as hungry as ever. But I could only manage about half-sized portions of everything.
And then, well, digesting those half-sized portions had its own problems. Day 1 was fine – but every day after that saw me (whisper it) burping. A lot. Which is farfrom ladylike.
One does sit properly
I definitely looked more efficient at work and more awake on the train. Being forced to hold one’s back straight automatically makes you look slimmer, more poised and more alert.
My week in corsets gave me enviable curves (my waist reduced by 3in) and forced me to hold myself in a more poised manner. But it was not fun. By day three, I was grumpy and realised that it’s no coincidence women shed their stays as they became more liberated. Indeed, the flapper fashions of the 1920s were a direct result of the growing freedom, and changing role, of women.
Although fashion has flirted with waist-nipping since the flappers (the Merry Widow corset became popular in the late 1950s, followed by girdles), corset-wearing has declined massively.
Today, they are worn by a dedicated few – often as outerwear. And while I do plan to wear mine again, it will be only for a day at a time. And not when I’m planning to eat.
- In 1951, the average woman’s waist was 27in; her bust and hips were about 10in larger. Today, the average waist measures 34in; hip and bust dimensions have grown by only 1in.
- In 1917, after the US entered the First World War, the US War Industries Board asked women to stop buying corsets to free up metal for war production. This liberated 28,000 tons of metal – enough to build two battleships.
- Most corsets in the 1700s were an inverted conical shape.
- Lana Turner is reported to have said of the Merry Widow corset: ‘I am telling you, the Merry Widow was designed by a man. A woman would never do that to another woman.’
Feature first published in the Lady magazine on May 9, 2013